UK sector leaders expect ‘striking’ pivot to science research

National survey of pro vice-chancellors indicates widespread shift away from humanities subjects in near future

January 18, 2022
Live samples are held in a container during the opening of the new Covid-19 testing lab to illustrate UK sector leaders expect ‘striking’ pivot to science research
Source: Getty

Many UK universities are looking to invest more in scientific research while deprioritising support for the arts and the humanities, a survey of senior institutional leaders has found.

In a poll of institutional research leads conducted by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), 61 per cent of those whose universities included life and medical sciences in their research portfolios said they expected these subjects to account for a higher proportion of their research activity by next year compared with 2020.

Only 2 per cent predicted less research activity in life and medical sciences by 2023, with 31 per cent saying these subjects would account for about the same proportion of their university’s research.

Some 38 per cent of the survey’s 78 respondents predicted that physical sciences, engineering and mathematics would make up more of their research activities by next year.

Asked the same question for the arts and humanities, however, 41 per cent of respondents whose institutions covered these subjects believed that they would account for a lower share of their institution’s output by 2023, while only 7 per cent expected a pivot towards arts and humanities.

Those intentions are significant because universities “dig deep into surpluses on non-research activity” to the tune of £4.5 billion a year, meeting about 30 per cent of the total cost of research, and therefore have a key role in shaping the direction of university research alongside funders, explained the study’s author, Tom Sastry, head of sustainability at Research England, who described the shift towards STEM as “striking”.

The survey’s respondents, typically pro vice-chancellors for research, were drawn from 77 institutions. The results, designed as a snapshot of university intentions, also indicated “greater strategic direction of research activity within universities”, said Mr Sastry.

More than half of respondents (59 per cent) agreed that their institution had become more selective in allocating research time and facilities to researchers, while a majority (53 per cent of respondents) also said departments, schools and faculties were being asked to do more to justify their resources for research, he noted.

However, Hetan Shah, chief executive of the British Academy, said he was not overly concerned by the predicted shift away from humanities research, stating that “although these findings are interesting, they are not especially cause for surprise or alarm”.

“It is perhaps not surprising that medical sciences are top of people’s minds amid an ongoing pandemic – it would be useful for UKRI to return to the subject in three years’ time and measure the extent to which these perceptions turn out to be reality,” he said.

The UK sector remained a “world leader” in what the British Academy now calls “SHAPE” disciplines – social sciences, humanities and the arts for people and the economy – continued Mr Shah, pointing to the country’s “continuing success in competitive research programmes such as those run by the European Research Council”.

“Whether it is making sense of the devastating economic consequences of the coronavirus, providing evidence on mask wearing or advising governments on how to overcome sluggish engagement with the vaccine, SHAPE researchers have been essential to the pandemic response,” he said.

“This same research base will be vital in the years ahead as governments grapple with the impacts of climate change, the rise of artificial intelligence, low productivity and many other topics which require an understanding of culture, people, incentives and politics alongside science and technology.”

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